The mission of NASA’s newest Earth satellite may sound simple, but its findings could have huge impacts across the world and right here in the Midwest. When it launched last month, the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, began a three-year project to collect data on a key player in the water and carbon cycles that determine plant growth and drive weather patterns: soil moisture. IISG’s Michael Brennan has the details.
As the name suggests, soil moisture data tells us how much water the soil can absorb and store. These measurements play a crucial role in everything from knowing when to plant crops to community flood planning. If there isn’t enough moisture in the soil, plants can’t take root and grow. And if the soil’s storage capacity has been maxed out, any additional rain or snowfall will runoff into nearby rivers and lakes—carrying nutrients and contaminants with it.
Due to the earth’s vast landscape, tracking and assessing soil moisture is extremely challenging, especially in remote locations. In fact, a lack of detailed soil moisture data has historically been a significant hurdle for community planners, farmers, and climate and weather forecasters. SMAP has the potential to change all of that. Its microwave radiometer and radar instruments will give us the most accurate, high-resolution moisture data ever collected from space. And its orbital path will ensure we have measurements from pole to pole.
NASA has said that it expects to release the first set of measurements within nine months, with fully-validated data expected in 15 months. With these numbers in hand, farmers will be able to hone in on the ideal time for planing and harvesting and community decision makers will be able to pinpoint their flood risk—and plan accordingly. The data will also tell scientists how much carbon is being stored in or released by plants, allowing them to refine the climate models that we rely on to predict and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
The NASA space program is responsible for a lot of technological and scientific advancements, but SMAP may be its greatest contribution yet.
For more information on SNAP for video showing its launch and orbit, visit smap.jpl.nasa.gov/.
A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. For community planners, balancing community growth and environmental health can be a challenge. Putting down roads, building along waterways, or converting prairies to farmland puts stress on local ecosystems—sometimes so much that it can trigger rapid and potentially irreversible shifts in how they function. Fortunately, Tipping Points and Indicators gives watershed planning groups and others the information they need to avoid these tipping points while still meeting community needs. The web tool uses the latest watershed research and cutting-edge technology to show planners how close their watershed is to known tipping points and what the watershed will look like if land use decisions continue “business as usual.” Planners can also test how developing more in one location or restoring habitats in another moves ecosystems closer to or further from tipping points. With help from a Sea Grant facilitator, planners can use these interactive maps and simulators—along with recommended policies, ordinances, and outreach efforts—to prevent aquatic ecosystems from being degraded beyond repair. Since it was launched in 2013, Tipping Points and Indicators has undergone many design and feature updates inspired by months of pilot testing. Larger maps and detailed legends that toggle on and off give users a closer look at their watershed and make information on characteristics like stream quality and land cover types more accessible. Users can also easily track how proposed land use changes will effect ecosystem health with updates to the planning simulators. To learn more about the tool and see key features in action, watch this introductory video created by the IISG team leading the project.
Tipping Points and Indicators was developed in collaboration with Purdue University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Windsor, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, NOAA, and the Sea Grant Great Lakes Network. Funding for the four-year project comes from NOAA and EPA.
Eliana Brown recently joined the Illinois Water Resources Center as an outreach specialist. Prior to starting at IWRC, she worked at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Facilities & Services as the MS4 coordinator and at Illinois EPA as a field engineer. Eliana has a M.S. in environmental engineering and a B.S. in general engineering and marketing from the University of Illinois.
The following is a contributing post from Eliana, who has a passion for rain gardens and green infrastructure:
When you were a university student, did you ever reimagine your campus landscape? Students at the University of Illinois did exactly that as an assignment for Landscape Architecture (LA) 452, Native Plants and Design.
The U of I campus has 84 miles of storm sewer, most of which drain rainwater directly to Boneyard Creek. The LA 452 students designed landscapes with elements that capture water and allow it to soak in on-site to reduce loads to the existing storm sewer and creek. These elements (called green infrastructure) include rain gardens, swales, and green roofs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sees green infrastructure as a way to create sustainable, resilient communities that improve water quality.
EPA has a competition called the Campus RainWorks Challenge that invites “student teams to design an innovative green infrastructure project for their campus showing how managing stormwater at its source can benefit the campus community and the environment.”
According to Jason Berner, EPA environmental protection specialist, who has been involved with administering the competition, it is a great way for students to see how green infrastructure is related to the larger campus master plan. “It moves us beyond single pilot projects, but at the same time, blends both small and large scale thinking,” he explained.
LA 452 instructor Tawab Hlimi is leading the U of I Campus RainWorks entry. Students in his class helped brainstorm ideas for the entry. One of those ideas is pictured. Student Jiwon
Kim reimagined the grounds at the National Soybean Research Building (which happens to house Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Illinois Water Resources Center). Native plant rain gardens intercept stormwater from the building roof and parking lot. During large storms, the design takes advantage of existing storm sewers by overflowing excess water to them.
Like many cities and universities, the U of I began installing storm sewers more than 100 years ago. Storm sewers benefit cities by draining flooded areas. However, they can overload receiving streams and cause unintended damage. Adding green infrastructure elements to the existing infrastructure helps ensure a healthier ecosystem on-site and downstream.
Per Hlimi, “Through a campus wide application of rain gardens, students hybridized native plantings with a superficial stormwater management strategy to meet multiple objectives: accommodating the ‘first flush’ of frequent storm events through detention, infiltration, and biofiltration, reducing the load on existing subsurface infrastructure, improving the water quality entering into the Boneyard Creek, creating habitat for pollinators, and rendering the campus landscape as living laboratory.”
Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, students won’t have to imagine green infrastructure on campus. They’ll see it.
Anjanette Riley was at last week’s Resilient Chicago workshop on climate trends and adaptive planning. She had this to say about the event:
Presentation after presentation, what struck me most is just how much climate change already is and will continue to impact our daily lives—and how interconnected those impacts are. Actually, a quick glance at the agenda was all it took to realize this workshop was going to be about much more than just predictions of yearly rainfall or average temperatures. The speakers were climatologists, public health experts, community planners, and policy specialists. And the participants were just as diverse—educators, urban planners, local officials, and private consultants.
Of course, we did talk about climate concepts and trends. IISG’s Molly Woloszyn kicked things off by making sure we were all on the same page about the difference between weather and climate—short-term changes vs. long-term averages. And throughout the day, Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel told us that temperatures have risen by roughly 1.5o F over the last century and that we can expect drier summers and more precipitation in winter, spring, and fall.
Much of the day, though, was dedicated to what these changes mean for the people and wildlife that call the Chicago area home. Some impacts are pretty straightforward—you have likely seen them already. Warmer temperatures mean greater strain on an aging energy infrastructure and higher rates of heatstroke. Wetter springs means more stormwater runoff and basement flooding. And summertime droughts could lower crop yields and increase food prices.
Many were hard to see at first glance. As nice as they sound to many of us, warmer winters could have serious repercussions for public health, infrastructure, and Great Lake ecosystems. For example, with less frequent deep freezes, some disease-carrying insects could persist throughout the year. Fluctuations between freezing and thawing will also create more potholes and cracks in building exteriors. And—most unexpected to me—warmer water temperatures could make Lake Michigan and surrounding waterways more welcoming to a whole new suite of invasive species that could never have lived there before.
Fortunately, presenters came armed with solutions as well. Most were adaptation strategies—steps to prepare for climate change impacts. Speakers from Chicago Wilderness, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and Hey and Associates, for example, showed how planting native trees, building rain gardens, and restoring natural areas could simultaneously filter pollutants from stormwater, lower air temperatures, and reconnect habitats divided by urbanization. Samuel Dorevitch, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dan Gabel from ComEd talked about the importance of early warning systems and emergency response plans. And the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Harriet Festing introduced their Rain Readyprogram, which helps homeowners and communities understand flooding causes and prepare for future storms.
But don’t just take my word for it. All the presentations will soon be available on the Resilient Chicago website. In the meantime, peruse the many Midwestern Regional Climate Center resources on climate change predictions and adaptation planning.
We recently got some exciting news from former intern Ada Morgan, who in 2011 worked with Caitie McCoy on a study of community perceptions of sediment remediation in the Sheboygan River Area of Concern. We’ll let her tell you what she has been up to since.
“The Sheboygan study finished up just before I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I studied economics and environmental geology there, and I knew I wanted to continue my studies in the environmental field. I was encouraged by Caitie and a few others I looked up to to look into graduate school. That fall, I began a master of urban planning and policy program at the University of Illinois Chicago, where I continued to learn about how humans interact with our environment and how to think holistically about the decisions we make.
My specialization was in environmental planning. I took some great courses, like an economic and environmental planning course and a course on residential sustainability policy. My final project centered on greywater reuse in a south suburb of Chicago.
I graduated this past May and am now the environmental and sustainability coordinator for a bread manufacturing company. I started just a few weeks ago. I am responsible for both environmental compliance (permits, etc.) and sustainability projects and initiatives. My main task so far has been re-developing an environmental management system for the entire company, which has four different facilities.
My experiences working with Caitie at IISG was the best preparation I could have had for both graduate school and my current job. I was able to participate in almost all aspects of the Sheboygan study. I helped with interviewing stakeholders, performed data analysis, and co-authored the final report with Caitie. You don’t often get this kind of hands-on experience with qualitative analysis and reporting in school.
I also learned a lot about environmental regulations since the project I worked on was under EPA’s Great Lakes Legacy Act. Understanding the regulatory structure helped tremendously while I was in the urban planning program (reading codes) and continues to help me navigate compliance issues at my company. Overall, the time I spent at IISG was one of my most valuable internships, and I am extremely thankful to have had the opportunity to work at such a fantastic organization.”
For land use planners, balancing community growth and environmental health is always a challenge. But after months of pilot testing, IISG is putting the final touches on a new web-based tool that will help them do just that.
The Tipping Points and Indicators tool uses the latest watershed research and cutting-edge technology to show planners where aquatic ecosystems in their area are in danger of crossing a “tipping point,” triggering rapid and sometimes irreversible shifts in how they function. With help from a Sea Grant facilitator, planners can use the tool’s interactive maps, simulators, and recommended response strategies to develop watershed-specific plans that prevent ecosystems from being degraded beyond repair.
Specialists from Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant programs have spent the last few months testing the tool in broad range of communities and divers audiences. Planning groups from the industrialized southern Lake Michigan to the more preserved northern Wisconsin and Minnesota can now use the decision support system to kick off the watershed planning process. In Indiana, Ohio, and New York, facilitators have also introduced planning consultants and state employees to toolmodulesso they can take the process back to their own communities.
Experiences so far have been positive, with many users expressing excitement about the role Tipping Points and Indicators could play in improving watershed planning. Community members, local officials, and consultants were particularly interested in the tools’ recommended policies, ordinances, and outreach efforts tailored to local needs. In fact, a watershed advocacy group from the Duluth area mentioned they could have spent a whole day on that module alone.
To further enhance the tool, users also recommended making maps and planning strategies more watershed-specific. Many of these refinements are being made now. Others, including the addition of the new land cover data and models that predict future tipping points, are expected in the coming months.
And as the project grows, so does the lead team. Last month, IISG brought Purdue software developer Brandon Beatty onboard to help boost the usability of Tipping Points and Indicators and ensure it continues to rely on the latest research and technology.
The tipping points tool is part of a four-year project funded by NOAA and EPA and coordinated by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Partners include Purdue University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Windsor, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the Sea Grant Great Lakes Network.
A group of urban planning graduate students from University of Illinois have just returned from Milwaukee—but this wasn’t your typical weekend excursion. They spent their time interviewing government employees, business owners, members of the community, and others affected by clean-up efforts on the Milwaukee Estuary, where industrial toxins threaten water quality and aquatic wildlife. And the information they collected will go a long way to ensuring that future restoration and remediation projects across the region leave nearby communities stronger than they were before.
It is all a part of an IISG-funded project investigating the relationship between sediment removal projects and a community’s vulnerability to environmental hazards like natural disasters, pollution, and changing weather patterns. Social vulnerability depends on a lot of factors—average income, education levels, public engagement, and more. Using the Milwaukee Estuary and Grand Calumet Areas of Concern as models, U of I researchers Bethany Cutts and Andrew Greenlee are investigating how these factors change—for better or worse—when a community becomes involved in sediment removal projects.
This project stands apart from much of the research on community vulnerability. It is localized, focused on vulnerability over time, and supplements census data with qualitative information on community attitudes and perceptions of remediation. Because of these differences, its results will be a significant boost to the tool government agencies currently use to determine and reduce social vulnerability, the Social Vulnerability Index. Cutts and Greenlee are calling their tool the Social Vulnerability Index Plus (SoVI+).
When it is done, SoVI+ will help groups involved in remediation, including IISG, better prepare communities for the aspects of cleanup that may increase vulnerability—like restricted road access and heavy truck traffic. EPA could also use the new tool to prioritize sediment remediation in areas where it will be most beneficial.
Work is just beginning, but the project promises a lot of data collection and analysis over the next few years. That is where the students come in. They are all part of the Workshop in Urban Environmental Equity, an inter-departmental course focused on identifying historical demographic changes in the researched regions, as well as developing and piloting interview strategies that Cutts and Greenlee will continue to use well after the course is complete. Beyond being a big step forward for the research project, the workshop provides a unique opportunity for students to be a part of the design and implementation of a multidisciplinary, mixed-method research project—what one student called “the holy grail” of research. Situated at the intersection of social and economic shifts, environmental restoration, planning, and policy, the course and the research can have tremendous benefits for ongoing and future remediation projects and the coastal communities.
Photo A: Natalie Prochaska, Juliana Wilhoit, Andrew Greenlee, Annie Contractor, Vinisha Doshi, Nancy Smebak, and Rachel Wilson take a break from their work in Milwaukee. (Not pictured: urban planning graduate student and workshop member Carolina Chantrille.)
Photo B: U of I students take part in a “Ski the AOC” event to learn more about ongoing remediation efforts and the community.